I made a new cover for the first entry in my Professor Wagstaff mystery series. I got sick of the old one, it seemed a bit too generic. Not that I’m some sort of genius in graphic design by any means, but not too bad for a concoction of royalty-free images, eh?
You realize that this makes all copies with the original cover WORTH MILLIONS OF DOLLARS.
Click on the “Books I’ve Written” tab up top for more. I need the money.
So today a bunch of people evidently found this old post by searching my favorite catch phrase to discuss my team. 2018 was the year the Yanks truly emerged before losing in the post season both legitimately and then to the sign-stealing Altuve buzzer bullshit.
But THIS year looks real real good so far – they’re off to their best start since those late 90s dynasty years, and they’re beating everyone, not just the below-500 and mediocre teams, to put together the current best record in baseball. And mostly everyone is contributing – although the anemic bats of Gallo & Hicks are a standout and much of the lineup still suffers from over dependence on the long ball. There are still way too many solo home runs that wind up being meaningless. Nice to see Gleyber and LeMeheiu hitting better, Rizzo and Carpenter doing well, and outside of Chapman, the pitching has been solid all around.
And Judge is having the sort of season we’ve all been waiting for since he came up from the minors as the franchise face homegrown superstar – and making us all hope they just pay him the thirty billion a year or whatever it takes to keep him out of free agency at season’s end. There is no other homegrown brand-of-the-franchise superstar in Yankee history that left the team. Ever. And think of the roster of people we’re talking about here. They can’t let Judge go.
So here’s hoping the second half of 2022 is as good as the first, and that the Yanks’ ability to win series continues all through the post season. Anything can happen, so I’m enjoying the ride right now.
One of the stranger, stupider and very enjoyable movies of late is this odd homage to the persona/brand that is Nicolas Cage. Similar to how William Shatner has parlayed self-parody into iconic form, Cage plays “himself” in this action comedy send-up of the sorts of formula plots found in many of Cage’s earlier films.
The plot involves Cage taking a trip to Spain to meet the mysterious billionaire Javi Gutierrez (a wonderful scene stealing Pedro Pascal), who turns out to be Cage’s ultimate fanboy, wanting to make a film with him. Meanwhile, Cage is recruited by the CIA to take down Gutierrez, who actually fronts an international arms dealing crime family who kidnapped an innocent girl and…. I know, I know… you gotta be kidding me. But the whole thing is played for some good laughs, and the satire of Cage’s creative process as he works with and ultimately bonds with Javi as they meta-discuss developing a character driven movie where two men come together to save those close to them…
Well, while evoking much of one of Cage’s best films “Adaptation” without ever directly mentioning it, “Unbearable Weight…” does a lot of the same circular referencing type of stuff, throwing in material from many of Cage’s popcorn action films like Con-Air, The Rock, Gone In 60 Seconds, etc. The most direct parallel to Adaptation is how Cage occasionally argues with his younger self, a mostly cheerleading Raising Arizona-era version of Cage created via the magic of CGI. Adaptation satirized Hollywood formula more effectively and more explicitly than this, but Unbearable… does a wonderful job of keeping things moving along, is very well directed, and has a supporting cast strong enough to keep everything together in what amounts to a two hour version of how Vincent Price actually becomes the movie heroes his ham-actor character plays at the end of “His Kind of Woman.”
Evidently writer/director Tom Gormican got turned down multiple times by Cage in pitching this film, but a personal letter somehow changed Cage’s mind. And unsurprisingly, Cage co-produced it in the end.
The last of the book recommendations/reviews gathers up a bunch of material I’ve read over the last few months here and there, dealing with arts, literature or straight-up history.
Nancy Marie Brown’s The Abacus & The Cross -The Story of the Pope Who Brought The Light Of Science To The Dark Agesexamines the life of Gerbert of Aurillac, who became Pope Sylvester II. Gerbert, as a peasant monk, traveled to Muslim Spain in the mid 900s, got exposed to all the ancient knowledge compiled by the Abbasids and others, returned to France to start a school in Reims where he taught all the ancient Greco-Roman classical knowledge he’d learned in astronomy, math and the like (he may have also built astrolabes) and eventually through a myriad journey through the Medieval politics of the day mostly involving the inner workings of the Holy Roman Empire and the Capetian Dynasty of France, became Pope for a brief period. Brown puts forth an interesting thesis on how if Sylvester II and young Otto III of the HRE had lived longer, the schism of the eastern and western churches in 1054 could have been avoided, thereby changing all of European and Middle Eastern history, etc etc. It’s an interesting theory that’s tough to defend but her scholarship on the life of this dude is a fascinating dive into the way the Medieval European world worked, both in terms of the state of education and culture, as well as the politics.
Mark Lamster’s Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the painter Peter Paul Reubens follows similar lines of mixing a cultural examination of its subject (it’s a great straight-up bio of Reubens, discussing his art, the major works, and his great commercial and business success) with another dive into the politics of its era. This time it’s the Wars of Dutch Independence, and the Flemish Reubens serves as the perfect go-between to sneak messages and information between both the Spanish/Hapsburg and Netherlandish sides. They both like him, trust him… and while important powerful people & royalty pose for him, they chat in ways knowing he can pass the messages along. Not sure if he hid any coded messages in the cellulite of the female nudes he pained, but I guess we’d be getting into Da Vinci code territory going down that road.
Thomas Cahill’s Heretics & Heroes: How Renaissance Artists & Reformation Priests Created Our World is another entry in Cahill’s highly readable Hinges of History series. Cahill writes in a relaxed, breezy style, discussing the various figures he puts in the center of the catalyst-actions he sees moving civilization along. Cahill is not hiding that it’s all his opinion when he writes about Vermeer or Luther or Savonarola or anyone, really… so after a while the book becomes akin to listening to a really smart guy just talk about this stuff in a free wheeling manner. I recommend the other entries in this series as well.
Finally, a pair of similar books that are basically entertaining personal polemics, where each author cathartically releases whatever vitriol they have on assorted subjects in art and literature. Roger Kimball’s The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art catalogues academic works by various professors on specific paintings that are radical way-out-there interpretations of the works in question, offering Kimball some truly low-hanging fruit to pick apart. Kimball sticks to articles by various art professors where a predetermined political ideological agenda gets put in place first, and then whatever analysis of the work can be hammered into that structure happens, regardless of any other interpretations or sometimes obvious meanings found in the works. While the book focuses on art, the same argument against the sort of garbage that turns up in far too many humanities research could be applied to numerous other areas. It kept reminding me of my own personal episode with the sort of polemicist crap Kimball rails against, back in an undergrad film class listening to the stupidest analysis of Hitchcock’s Rear Window by a semiotician overly determined to cram as much Freudian symbolism and deconstructionist twaddle into an analysis that purported to argue that Hitchcock intended for it all. I ranted about it then and, probably similar to Kimball’s experience in writing this book, enjoyed a very cathartic exercise of reproducing said rant many years later in my Wagstaff & Meatballs novel, much of which I set at a Brown U reunion.
If you want the English literature version of the Kimball approach, albeit with MUCH more straight out analysis of some great books ranging from Beowulf to Jane Austen, I listened to The Politically Incorrect Guide To English & American Literature by Elizabeth Kantor (audiobook). Good GOD does she hate Margaret Atwood & Handmaid’s Tale, and good GOD does she hate the way that book has supplanted, in her eyes, the greater books by greater authors in the canon, all for pushing the sort of political agenda Kimball also rails against. Handmaid’s Tale turns up as the go-to “why do they teach this crap?” example throughout the book, regardless of what period of lit is being discussed. But the polemics aside, there’s some nice straight-forward what-you-missed-in-lit-class discussions of Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Chaucer, Dickens, and so forth, but Kantor also offers some very nice discussions of how to read these classics – how to deal with the language, how to approach their context, etc. which is excellent advice for anyone pursuing an interest in great literature, for academic purposes or just for reading great books and knowing them.
I’m in the middle of a major move, which means boxing up TONS of books. I’ll be spending more time boxing books in the next weeks rather than reading them. But once those boxes open, it will be back to the grind again. So, until next time…
To continue with some quick book reviews/recs, here are a bunch related to various ends of the entertainment world:
Round Up The Usual Suspects by Aljean Harmetz – had this one sitting on my shelf for years and finally got around to reading about all the behind the scenes action in the making of Casablanca, one of the greatest American films ever made. Wonderfully researched & written, with pretty much everything you need to know. Her book on The Wizard Of Oz is next on my shelf and next on my list.
The Searchers: Making of an American Legend by Glen Frankel: A marvelous piece of scholarship not only about the making of the John Ford classic film, but also an exhaustive history of the true story it was based on, that of the Comanche abduction of Cynthia Ann Parker in 1836 Texas. Frankel does a great job with the detailed history of that event, and of her family taking her back against her will after she had married the chief & given birth to the chief who would make peace. The book goes from the history to the story written about it that led to the film, and how the film altered the actual story. This appealed to my interest in history, and also provided enough behind the scenes material about one of my favorite westerns as well.
A pair of gossipy entertainments that go together are Mr. S: My Life With Frank Sinatra by George Jacobs, and Johnny Carson by Henry Bushkin. Both books follow the same basic arc – an outsider (Jacobs was Sinatra’s valet, Bushkin was Carson’s business advisor, dubbed “Bombastic Bushkin” in monologue jokes) gets invited into the inner social circle of a huge celebrity and tags along for various adventures with other celebs, drinking, sex, affairs, you name it – often being dragged along and demanded to be part of things by either Sinatra or Carson as they struggle to have friends they can actually trust when they trust very few. And in the end, both men are frozen out for some single event that the celeb can never forgive. Both books have some interesting stories and gossip (Jacobs might win in this regard, some of the throwaway things he says about various celebs are sickly funny an eye opening if true. Who knew Yul Brynner had an affair with Sal Mineo? I’ll never watch The Ten Commandments the same way again), and both are quick reads, to be sure.
More somber and certainly more pious was The Closer by Mariano Rivera, Rivera’s autobio of his life in Panama and his journey to the Yankees, leading to his amazing career as the greatest closer relief pitcher of all time. While a lot of the book gets into the baseball details, the overriding tone is that of Rivera’s enormous religious faith (he originally intended to become a priest) and how his faith interacted with his career. Some of the stories he tells of some of the heartbreaking losses I remember from my own Yankee fandom are discussed in terms of Rivera’s views on God’s overall plans for him in ways that are, quite simply, more sincere, different and beautiful than any other baseball autobio I’ve plowed through. The storyline is very matter of fact, but the big takeaway for me was how the steadiness of the guy on the mound was very much a product of that amazingly strong faith.
No religion to be found in Betting On Myself By Steven Crist, Crist’s autobio of how he journeyed through a journalism career to buying the Daily Racing Form and transforming it into the more modern version it is today. He also discusses his own history of betting the tracks, starting out back in his Harvard Lampoon days going to the Suffolk Downs dog park with fellow Lampooner George Meyer, who’d go on to be one of the big wheels on The Simpsons and clearly the source of Santa’s Little Helper. Crist, the son of film critic Judith Crist, also wrote a book called Exotic Betting, where he delves into all of his methods of pick 6 and pick 4 combos at the track – a wonderfully helpful book to me in figuring out my own betting strategies whenever I handicap the horse races. Crist was one of the best pick 6 players out there (although I’m FAR too cheap to bet all over the board like he did). Betting On Myself focuses more on his myriad journey through the publishing business, and his ups and downs in doing so. Since his theories were so helpful to me improving my own performances at the track, I found his autobio very interesting.
From time to time, I enjoy listening to George Noori’s late night radio program, Coast To Coast AM, which he inherited from Art Bell many years ago. It’ll depend on who the guests are, and Noori has a cast of regulars who turn up on the program frequently. A lot of the show is devoted to UFOs and abductions and bigfoot and numerology and alternate nutritionists and the like, but every now and then he’ll have on someone like theoretical physicist Michio Kaku or people who have researched some historic oddities to the nth degree, and I’ll let it play into the wee hours as I fall asleep.
This was my introduction to Robert Lanza & his theories of Biocentrism when he or some other acolyte of these theories whose name escapes me turned up as a guest one night. I very much enjoyed listening to a pair of audiobooks by Lanza,Beyond Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness & The Illusion of Death (the “illusion of death” was the hook for me, after spending a lot of years reading all sorts of material on Buddhist/Hindu ideas on reincarnation and their relation to some concepts in theoretical physics), and The Grand Biocentric Design: How Life Creates Reality. Lanza’s theories can be boiled down to the idea that consciousness is an eternal force that has created our reality, as opposed to the other way around – a universe is created and life evolves, reaching sentient consciousness. While Lanza develops and defends his ideas by discussing ideas based on quantum theory and other scientific concepts, I found his entire approach to be very spiritual – without directly mentioning any specific religion, Lanza’s theories amalgamate numerous concepts and ideas from across major world religions on the nature of reality and our place within it as thinking beings. Whenever he talked about the eternal nature of a universal consciousness, I kept thinking about Charlton Heston coming down from the burning bush in The Ten Commandments and telling Zephora and Joshua how God was “the light of eternal mind.”
So if some off-the-charts genius cosmology professor and Moses are on the same page, who am I to argue?
In any case, it was all fascinating listening, prompting a lot of thought and a sense of wonder. I suppose there are two sides to his consciousness theories as related to “the illusion of death,” since Lanza’s theories very much align with Eastern reincarnation beliefs that our consciousness but not our persona will recycle throughout time (although Lanza goes into fascinating detail about how time itself is a human concept & may not actually exist as we think about it. I’ll have to work that into Phigg & Clyde at some point, I guess.)
Another frequent topic on Noori’s radio show explores theories around ancient civilizations and their technological achievements. Frank Joseph’s Ancient High Tech: The Astonishing Scientific Achievements of Early Civilizations leaves out alien theories and explores in wonderful detail the actual scientific achievements of ancient civilzations across the globe, from compelling evidence of engineering, architecture, use of electric batteries, naviagation, and so forth. While Joseph argues some ideas that are not widely accepted (to put it mildly) by scientific and historic consensus as stated by experts (although that world has not looked very good in recent times, eh?), most of his scholarship is factual history and discoveries sitting in various museums worldwide. Much like with Lanza, listening to this book got me thinking a lot and wondering a lot, so it did the trick. And since I’ve always loved the theory that the Great Pyramid is not a tomb but instead is actually an ancient version of a Tesla Tower (someone tell Moses), hearing Joseph’s extensive analysis and defense of this idea was very entertaining.
Finally there was Synchronicity, Science, and Soulmaking: Understanding Jungian Synchronicity Through Physics, Buddhism, and Philosophy (audiobook) by Victor Mansfield, the late Colgate U. professor of physics and astronomy who spent more time teaching concepts of Tibetan Buddhism, and this book on Jungian synchronicities and their relation to both Buddhist ideas and theoretical physics was an uneven but mostly interesting listen. Mansfield provides assorted anecdotes from his students describing synchronistic events from their own lives, while offering his own analysis of the concepts related to an interwoven collective consciousness with Middle-way Buddhist ideas and concepts from quantum mechanics. Lanza’s work focuses on very similar ideas, so grouping them together was a good way to get my mind in the right mode to work on the next Wagstaff book.
Deep stuff…. this must mean the next installment of book reviews will be about trivial nonsense, so stay tuned!
Since I’m too lazy to write long individual reviews of a bunch of books I’ve gone through recently, I thought instead to compile them into a series of short blurbs like I did with some movies earlier. A bunch of these are audio books, since it makes my inevitable two hours daily in my car more worthwhile.
I don’t drive anywhere, I just sit in my car and listen to books. Just doing my part to SAVE THE PLANET.
Anyway – I’m always ready to go back in on the Shakespeare authorship conspiracy theory every now and then, and I can recommend a bunch of interesting books in this general area, as well as a couple I threw in there that analyze Shakespeare’s works in interesting ways.
Let’s start with Who Wrote Shakespeare? By John Mitchell, which evidently is sports talk guy Dan Patrick’s favorite book. Mitchell goes through a nice rundown of all the major authorship theories (Bacon, Marlowe, Oxford) as well as some others, and mostly winds up in the Oxford camp. His history of each candidate is readable and interesting, and makes a nice intro for people beginning to look into some of these theories.
If you want a well argued pro-Stratford-man-Shakespeare counterpoint, check out Contested Will by James Shapiro (audiobook), a Columbia prof of English lit who offers a wonderfully detailed history of how the authorship controversies developed, first in the nineteenth century with the Francis Bacon theories, and later with Oxford, Marlowe and others. But what really makes Shapiro’s book worth reading is how well he discusses the world of English theater and the nature of the professional writing life in Elizabethan times, and how a lot of the supposed illogical factoids on Shakespeare himself actually fit in well with how many of his contemporaries worked, published, earned money and the like. Shapiro must reject a lot of the idea that “all writing is autobiography” that drives many of the alternative author theories in order to arrive at his own arguments for Shakespeare himself, and even though I’m a doubter that Shakespeare wrote the material himself, I think Shapiro’s arguments describing the realities of Elizabethan playwright life are very compelling evidence.
Another book pursues a bona-fide mystery in the Shakespeare biography – what happened to his personal library? He must have had a large number of reference books for the material he wrote, especially since so much of it was based on earlier histories or classical plays. No evidence of a Shakespeare library exists anywhere, and he left no books to anyone in his will. Hmmm. So in Stuart Kells’ Shakespeare’s Library, (audiobook) Kells explores the history of the people who went searching for clues as to what happened to all those books, or whose books he may have actually used in his works (a patron? who knows) but this, again, winds up interweaving with the authorship question since the lack of this library casts doubt on Shakespeare as the author himself. Kells mostly writes about associates of his that follow the Henry Neville authorship theory (very well outlined in The Truth Will Out by Brenda James), but always comes back to the idea of hunting down evidence of the books themselves.
I liked Claire Asquith’s Shadowplay (an argument that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic sympathizer, evidence in his work, etc.), so I checked out her later book Shakespeare & The Resistance, (audiobook) where she offers a wonderfully detailed analysis of his early successful poems “Venus & Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece,” arguing that both poems are thinly disguised attacks on Henry VIII’s dissolution of church property & Elizabeth’s illegitimate reign over England. Asquith concludes her book with a nice description of the Essex Rebellion, arguing that Shakespeare was a supporter of the attempt to “Richard II” Elizabeth, basically. Not sure if I agree with her, but fascinating stuff.
I also enjoyed Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare & Politics, (audiobook) where the lit prof author of Will In The World organizes an intersting analysis of many Shakespeare plays (mostly histories and tragedies) by categorizing the types of characters that surround tyrannical figures – bad kings, bad emperors, bad Greco-Roman main characters, etc. The only place I thought it broke down was in his final chapter on “Coriolanus” where the book becomes more along the lines of Greenblatt & Politics rather than Shakespeare. Greenblatt tries repeatedly to compare Coriolanus to Trump and the section sounds like a tangential rant during a college lecture of some tenured prof venting his own politics in front of passive undergrads. The Coriolanus-as-tyrant arguments are certainly sound, but they can be pinned to practically any American or foreign politico of your choice if you cherry pick whatever you don’t like about them. And that ought to be the point, since it was certainly Shakespeare’s. Since it came at the end of the listen, it took something away from the earlier chapters where Greenblatt sticks to the texts themselves and offers a very nice overall analysis of the way political commentary relating to Elizabethan and Jacobean times turns up in Shakespeare’s plays.
For this installment, I’ll throw in a tangentially related book I also listened to, A Hidden History of the Tower of London by John Paul Davis, (audiobook) an exhaustively detailed history of the Tower, its construction and renovations/additions, and every. single. major. execution. EVER! inside its walls. After a while, I wondered how there could be any Brit nobility left since all they did was kill each other, chopping heads off and good ol’ drawing and quartering. I guess that’s what happens when you have to wait hundreds of years for Jamie Oliver to come along and teach you how to cook.
Since I’m still fried from a cross country trip, I won’t go into great detail on any of these, but here’s a batch of movies worth checking out, some recent, some old:
Old Henry (2021) – a very well made old fashioned straight-forward western, with a nice reveal that I’m ashamed of myself for not spotting earlier, and a terrific shoot-out at the end.
Last Night In Soho (2022) – another Edgar Wright entry that showcases both his strengths and weaknesses (my pet peeve is how he over-drags out his climactic payoffs, and that’s true here) but there’s some wonderfully creepy haunting imagery in this one which features Diana Rigg’s final screen appearance. A decent psychological thriller where a young fashion designer uncovers some rather unsavory secrets left over from the swingin’ ’60s Carnaby Street scene of yesteryear.
I got a bunch of Czech films from a friend of mine and am working my way through them – I started with Kolya (1996), a sweet comedy about a terminal bachelor who gets stuck with a kid after an arranged marriage for immigration purposes goes awry. The impressive thing here is how well this material is handled versus typical Hollywood formula where some dirty old man becomes superdad when getting stuck with a kid, etc. The same actor (Zdenek Sverak) and director (Jan Sverak, they are father and son) also made a wonderful film in 2007, Empties, about a teacher who quits his job and works in a market recycling used bottles while trying to keep his longtime marriage together. Both movies give you a great visual tour of Prague as well. Then I checked out Closely Watched Trains (1966), an excellent (if depressing) film set in World War 2 focusing on a train dispatcher’s apprentice and his experiences growing up during the war and what it did to Czechoslovakia. All 3 are worth checking out.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021) – with CUMBERBATCH!!!! as artist Louis Wain, everyone’s favorite crazy cat man. Most of this film focuses on Wain’s mental illness and tries to present some sort of theory of the source of his issues from his family life and the death of his wife. The performances are good, but the film is very repetitive in Cumberbatch’s various breakdown episodes (as much as I like this guy as an actor, he’s getting typecast a LOT as mentally troubled geniuses), and it practically pushes his art into the background, whereas I went into it hoping that his art would be the focus. In case you don’t know about wain, he produced a ton of silly humanized cat characters doing silly human things, but has he got sicker, his art got more abstract and nearly psychedelic, yet still always based on cat designs. The fascinating thing about Wain is how he kept his artistic skills or even got better at them as his mental illness worsened.
Hmm… I wrote the most about the cat one…. that figures.
Edgar Wright’s fan-boy documentary about Ron & Russell Mael, the brothers who comprise the long-running cult band Sparks, is a worthwhile view for anyone who has been a longtime fan of the band, and worthwhile for someone who has only a vague familiarity with a song or two, or has never heard of them.
The film advertises Sparks as “your favorite band’s favorite band,” and this sums up a lot of it – they have always been admired and held in awe by people within the music world for decades, largely since Sparks serves as a shining example of a music act that never really sold out commercially – they have changed their sound (somewhat) over the years (though they remain largely a synth rock/pop sound driven by Ron’s keyboards and Russell’s falsetto flourishes) – and whenever they had issued a commercial hit, it often led to them continuing to experiment with different line-ups, producers, or a general approach. Add to that an amazing consistency in clever and often humorous lyrics – decades worth, rivaling Zappa in the “prolific” category if not the genre experimentation category – and you can see why every one of your favorite bands holds them in such esteem. These guys have actually had the art-for-art-sakes career that every musician pines for.
Wright’s film traces the lives and careers of the brothers Mael in great detail, mixing tons of archival footage with present day interviews shot in black and white, as well as some animation. The film will certainly tell you the entire chronology of the band and its ups and downs as far as successful releases, change of record labels, and the different phases of their story.
It’s a fun ride – but Wright is so blinded by his love for the band that the film often becomes repetitive and leaves out a deeper examination of their music. Anyone who has followed the Maels’ career knows that they are very secretive about their personal and private lives, and prefer to present themselves to the public as the quirky-artsy music act they’ve been for all these years. Despite all the narrative we get in a music doc running two and a quarter hours – that’s all we’re STILL left with in the end – and that’s fine – but perhaps in those two and a quarter hours, we might find SOME room for deeper reflection and discussion of their music itself?
We get wisps of songs and videos the band has done – Wright picks most of their best work to showcase here – but he goes through all of it so quickly that we get no anchor, no key window into the ways that Ron writes these songs, or which of those songs he and Russell might have something to say about, in terms of why they got written in the first place. Not one song is presented in its entirety. This is a huge mistake.
Other music docs have run into problems with their subject – Taylor Hackford’s Chuck Berry doc Hail, Hail, Rock & Roll showcases a fantastic concert of all stars backing up Chuck, but Berry shut down any attempt during interviews that took the narrative into darker places, even if they were true. End of the Century: The Story of The Ramones went to those dark places – celebrating the music of the band and their enormous influence on other bands – but also presented the frustration and interpersonal problems the band went through. There are a lot of similarities in the Ramones’ story and Sparks – both bands never achieved the huge commercial success they had been touted for early on in their careers, but both bands influenced countless other bands and were viewed with awe by fellow musicians. The Ramones wanted that commercial fame – Sparks could care less.
The XTC documentary, This Is Pop, also dealt greatly with the commercial success versus artistic integrity issues and how they can rip a band apart – but the film makers managed to get Andy Partridge on camera discussing his composition method, and how his synaesthesia figures into it – and watching those few minutes suddenly made nearly every one of his songs make sense.
Wright gives us no such insight into what comprises the songwriting of the Maels. A few seconds of a song will be played, and some interviewee will comment on a lyric line or two – and that’s all. I really don’t care what Fred Armisen things of a Sparks lyric. I’d rather hear Ron Mael talk about where it came from. There is one moment when former band members reveal that the music would be written first with nonsense words, and the actual lyrics would come in at the last minute. Why not interview the Maels about this process? Is it the routine, since they prefer routine in their daily lives?
I’d rather hear it from them than the parade of cool-approved personalities telling us how much they love the band – Wright takes up far too much screen time with famous fans of the band all saying basically the same thing. I don’t care how much Patton Oswalt or Amy Sherman-Palladino or Mike Meyers love this band. I also don’t NEED their stamp of approval for me to like them either – and that’s probably the biggest flaw with this film. Wright’s interviews with their former band mates, producers and music industry people offer far more insight into the Sparks’ story than hearing the same “Oh those guys are so cool!” gushing from people we’re supposed to follow the tastes of.
More of the film should be about the music. Granted, 25 albums and hundreds of songs are a lot of ground to cover, but why not have the Maels pick a few of their favorites for closer examination, or find a way to feature those songs in their entirety in the film? Like I said, we get no song in its entirety at all. We’re told over and over again how brilliant this band is – and often by people totally unrelated to the production of music – but we are not allowed to listen to the evidence in depth. And we never get any sort of deeper reflection from the Maels, either via Wright’s interviews or in archival footage, on any of the songs themselves. It’s biggest hole in the film.
And I’ll admit that while I’m always happy to have a band like this out there, it’s not like I own a ton of their records and listen to them all the time. I like these guys a lot, but I’ve always found them to be more of an art-visual act rather than just music alone. Check out some of their videos on their youtube channel I link in a bit to see the totality of it all. Wright’s doc mentions their love of film and their near-misses in getting more involved with movies (although it looks like they have a soundtrack gig coming up). They’re not the obvious “art school band” that Devo or Talking Heads are, but they’ve gotca similar vibe. The synth-pop sound is okay to me, but not my passion – but this movie’s lack of depth for their music DID have me diving deep into youtube, (Here is a link to Sparks’ official youtube channel) listening to the songs of theirs I did remember pretty well, and then discovering their more recent material. And all of it was pretty good. I kept thinking more of it needed to be in the film.
So I recommend the movie on that level – it’s an overly long documentary that somehow manages to make you hungry enough for what it ought to be about.